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Parents and students address the Southington Public Schools Board of Education regarding a controversial vocabulary list last week.

Southington Public Schools/YouTube

Professors at Southern Connecticut State University are rallying behind a local teacher investigated for sharing a list of terms about race and gender with 10th-grade students.

“We urge the Southington Board of Education, and all Connecticut Boards of Education, to resist attempts to divide us, and to stand firmly on the side of academic freedom and free speech in the classroom,” says a letter to the Southington Public Schools board signed by more than 60 Southern Connecticut State professors.

‘Voicing Support for Teachers’

“We reiterate our support for all teachers, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or creed,” the letter continues. “And we call on Connecticut legislators, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System, and the Connecticut public to join us in voicing support for teachers who wish to discuss racism in the classroom.”

The glossary in question contains such terms as explicit and implicit bias, bigotry versus prejudice, cisgender, cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, structural racism, and white privilege. White privilege, for instance, is defined as “societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise [of] the same social, political or economic circumstances.”

The glossary reportedly was adapted from an inclusive vocabulary guide for students at the University of Arizona. A 10th-grade English teacher at Southington High School shared it with students to prepare them for conversations about race and other complex themes in the literature they’ll read this academic year.

The teacher, who remains publicly unnamed, was criticized indirectly by parents and at least one board member at a board meeting earlier this month.

“I read the worksheet. Do I agree with it? Absolutely not,” Joseph Baczewski, board vice chair, reportedly said at that meeting. “For all of the crap going on in the world right now, this is it? The first week of school to start off negatively. It’s troublesome.”

Regarding such comments, the Southern Connecticut State professors wrote in their letter that “we are having a hard time construing this as anything other than a politically motivated attack on free speech. As parents, professors and teachers of teachers, we write to let you know that we are dismayed by the fact that the board seems to be engaging in partisan politics, restricting the free speech and academic freedom of teachers who are struggling to teach in remarkably complex and difficult times.”

The letter continues, “What, exactly, is wrong with a worksheet that provides simple straightforward characterizations of concepts such as ‘marginalization’ and ‘white privilege’ as a way to help students contextualize literature? Sure, these concepts are difficult. So are discussions about genocide, the Holocaust, sexual assault, cyber bullying, suicide and many, many other social ills. This does not mean that we avoid them. To ban the concepts is equivalent to antiquated practices such as banning books like To Kill A Mockingbird in the 1960s. We trust that you are not interested in engaging in censorship.”

The Connecticut teacher in question reportedly was put on paid administrative leave while the district investigated the glossary.

Students’ ‘Right to Be Challenged’

A parent group called Families for Freedom organized a rally opposing the glossary—and the kinds of discussions it’s meant to guide—ahead of a second board meeting last week.

“This is the exact type of material that Southington parents have been told over and over again was not being taught in their child’s classroom by the chairwoman of the BOE and other members of the administration,” the group wrote on its Facebook page ahead of the rally. “Why would a 10th-grade English II (Accelerated) teacher be pushing for discussions about gender ideologies and components of CRT,” or critical race theory.

Meredith N. Sinclair, an associate professor of secondary English education who signed the letter, said that “so often these groups use the rhetoric of quote-unquote ‘parents’ rights.’ But what about the rights of students? Their right to be challenged, to explore new ideas, and most importantly to have their lived experiences acknowledged in the classroom. To not allow conversations about race or gender or sexuality is to disregard and disrespect the identities and lived experiences of our students.”

Critical race theory is a concept rooted in legal theory and asserts, among other ideas, that race is a social construct and that racism remains baked into U.S. laws and institutions. Discussing racism with respect to literature presented in a high school English class does not amount to teaching critical race theory. But CRT has become something of a catchall term for discussions about race and racism and other so-called divisive concepts in the past several years.

Legislative proposals seeking to limit classroom discussions on divisive concepts—widely called CRT bans—increased by 250 percent in 2022 compared to 2021, according to a report that the free expression and literary group PEN America released last month. Most of these bills focus on K-12 education, but 39 percent of bills this year targeted colleges and universities, compared with 30 percent last year.

Seven states already have passed divisive concepts legislation regarding higher education explicitly, according to a June update from PEN America. More states have passed laws governing K-12 instruction.

Beyond CRT bans, K-12 educators in multiple states are now facing book bans. Another report out this month from PEN America documented 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, involving 1,648 unique titles, from July of last year to June of this year. Some 41 percent of banned books include LBGTQ themes or prominent characters, and 40 percent include prominent characters of color. Some 22 percent include sexual content of some kind, and 21 percent include discussions of race or racism. Forty-nine percent of the banned titles are intended for young adult readers.

In Hood County, Texas, for instance, the constable reportedly is investigating what’s on a high school library’s shelves, and some community members have complained that a school book review committee had too many librarians on it. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has asked for public records surrounding the criminal investigation but received none. Last week, FIRE complained to the Hood County district attorney’s office about this noncompliance. Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with FIRE, said in a statement that the constable’s investigation “is itself a threat to the First Amendment rights of students and teachers, as investigations—particularly those seeking felony charges over library books—will cause chilling effects. This chill will persist so long as such an investigation is not disbanded. If, after four months of active investigation, Constable Jordan’s investigation has borne no fruit, it should be uprooted.”

In addition to—and in part because of—such efforts, K-12 schools across the country are facing a severe teacher shortage. Connecticut is better off than some states that have lowered teaching-credential requirements to get bodies into classrooms, but the Connecticut State Department of Education still lists 10 teaching specialties as facing shortages this year. In some cases, the state is offering teachers loan forgiveness and mortgage assistance as employment incentives.

Heidi Howkins Lockwood, a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State who signed the letter to the board, said that the “primary reason we were quick to organize a response is that attacks like this are exacerbating the teacher shortage in Connecticut. Our student educators are increasingly hesitant about going into K-12 education, particularly secondary education, given the increasing fear of censorship by well-organized alt-right networks, and the perception that everything they say may be carefully monitored and policed by politically motivated watchdog groups.”

Members of the school board did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Southington schools superintendent Steven Madancy shared a statement about some of the findings of the district’s investigation with Inside Higher Ed.

“For every concern the district received over the use of this material the district received an equal amount of correspondence expressing support for its use,” he said. “It was clear during our comprehensive review that the teacher had no intent on slanting student perception, and instead was trying to create space for classroom discussions that would be occurring throughout the year. As a result of our comprehensive review, the teacher now realizes that the sources utilized to develop these supplemental materials may not have been neutral in nature, and recognizes the bias and controversial statements that some took issue with.”

Madancy said he recommended that the district’s professional development and evaluation committee provide further training on teaching “complex issues,” based on an existing board policy on teaching controversial themes. High school English and social studies departments will be provided additional collaboration time to vet sources and share lesson materials, and “wherever there may be a question as to the appropriateness of a particular document or video, ensure our teachers consult with colleagues teaching the same course, [and] if necessary, the department leader or building administrator.”

‘We’d Love to See More of It’

Madancy added, “Let me be clear, moving forward, I support this teacher and all teachers in our district, who are in today’s world facing the reality of having to teach what can be considered at-times controversial subjects and contemporary issues in our classrooms. This has been an unfortunate distraction for all of us and we will not debate this in the media or on social media.”

Jessica S. Powell, an associate professor of education who signed the faculty letter, said that being a teacher educator right now requires the “parallel work” of “helping our students develop deep understandings of what it means to engage in antiracist and antibias pedagogies and curricula while simultaneously grappling with how to navigate a movement that is trying to silence them and consequently harm our children.”

Jeremy Young, senior manager for free expression and education at PEN America, said, “We haven’t seen many cases like this where groups of faculty speak out in defense of their local K-12 colleagues who are facing educational censorship, but we’d love to see more of it. Not every faculty member, and not every university, is in a position politically to be able to intervene in this way. But when they are, they should.”

Educational censorship at the K-12 level makes students “less prepared for college, threatens concurrent enrollment and early college credit programs, and restricts the curricula of college-level teacher training programs,” Young added. “K-12 teachers generally cannot speak publicly on matters impacting their workplaces, so seeing their university-level colleagues standing up for them is wonderful. We need more of this sort of cross-sector solidarity throughout our entire system of education, which faces unprecedented threats at every level.”

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